Once-in-a-lifetime game checked all the boxes for this Arsenal fan

Posted 7/26/19

CHARLOTTE — It’s hard to put into an analogy what it meant for me to see my favorite sports team play a game in Charlotte this past weekend.

Maybe you can help me.

This past Saturday, my …

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Once-in-a-lifetime game checked all the boxes for this Arsenal fan

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Posted

CHARLOTTE — It’s hard to put into an analogy what it meant for me to see my favorite sports team play a game in Charlotte this past weekend.

Maybe you can help me.

This past Saturday, my wife and I traveled to the Queen City to see Arsenal Football Club, a London-based soccer team, play ACF Fiorentina, a club that plays out of Florence, Italy. Both squads were in the U.S. as part of the International Champions Cup, a preseason tournament that brings teams from Europe to both America and Asia to get ready for the upcoming season and spread their brands across the world.

I didn’t grow up an Arsenal fan. I played soccer when I was a kid, like most my age, but didn’t really watch it. I thought it was boring. I’d watch the U.S. every once in a while during World Cup season, but I had never heard of Arsenal or Fiorentina until my senior year of college. After a month in South Africa, I picked up soccer as an interest and started following it religiously.

I chose to support Arsenal. It was kind of random how it happened — a little too detailed to get into here — but I was in. I was a fan of the Gunners. (Side note: Most teams have a nickname, but it’s not included in their formal name. The Carolina Panthers are called that formally, but Arsenal isn’t called the Arsenal Gunners formally.)

There’s a lot to like about Arsenal. It’s an old club, started originally in 1886 by a group of workers from the Woolwich Arsenal Armament Factory. It’s been a consistently successful club, with 13 English league championships and 13 domestic cup wins. Those who have played for Arsenal include some of the greatest footballers of their eras and all-time — Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams and Ian Wright among them. Current manager Unai Emery replaced Arsene Wenger, who spent an un-relatable 22 seasons at the club. The team is currently owned by American Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Nuggets.

Not that we’re all fans of Kroenke, but that’s too much to get into here.

Of course, I didn’t know all that when I became a fan, but I learned it and I learned to love it. I learned to love the red and white of the home kits, which reminded me of the Carolina Hurricanes’ uniforms that I had watched and worn for many years. I learned to appreciate the team’s attacking and skillful play, even though it made our defense suffer sometimes. A lot of times.

I became a fan at the tail end of Arsene Wenger’s success. Our last league title was 2004, when we went a whole season without a loss, an ultrarare accomplishment. We’ve won three FA Cups — a secondary competition that is played like the NCAA Tournament in basketball and featured 736 teams from across England in the 2018-2019 season — in my time as a fan, so it hasn’t been barren.

Seeing as how all of Arsenal’s games during the regular season are in England and Europe, watching them live was a bit of an adjustment. Weekend matches can start as early as 7:30 a.m. eastern time with the latest kicking off at 12:30 p.m. Weekday matches start in mid-afternoon. I’ve spent some time at work over the years watching those games with earphones on.

So to not only see Arsenal in the U.S., but in North Carolina, two hours from my hometown, was an amazing thing. It’s like living in England and being a big New England Patriots fan. They play at such a different time than you, and actually seeing them in person seems like a long shot.

But thanks to the uptick in soccer’s popularity in the States in recent years, some of the best teams in Europe have made trips to the U.S. a regular thing. Clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona have appeared in America over recent years as part of rewarding their American fan base and growing their worldwide appeal, and making a lot of money in the process.

I think the least interesting thing I want to get across in this piece is the game story. We won 3-0, thanks to a pair of goals — called a “brace” in soccer parlance — from young forward Eddie Nketiah and another goal from a fine finish by young midfielder Joe Willock. The team donned their new away jerseys — most European soccer teams alter their uniforms every season, sometimes subtly and sometimes drastically — and dominated possession for most of the game. Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez made four good saves in the first half to keep Fiorentina off the board — and I like seeing good goalkeeping almost as much as a stunning goal.

But what was most remarkable about Saturday was that I was a group of people, most of them Arsenal fans, who got to see their favorite team live in America. Like many, I’m sure, it was the first time I had seen them in-person, and it was in North Carolina.

It was a real blessing. My wife and I wore our Arsenal gear and cheered on our boys as they really ran the show. I was nervous we wouldn’t score — my biggest fear about going to a game in London is going all that way and then see us shut out — but that fear was assuaged early on.

If you get a chance to do something that’s once-in-a-lifetime, do it. Even if you can’t figure out how to exactly put it in words.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR, where he attmepts to keep his soccer commentary to a whisper.

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